Analysis of William Blake’s Poems “A Divine Image” and “The Human Abstract”
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William Blake, one of the earliest and greatest figures of Romanticism, wrote the “Songs of Innocence and Experience” in the 1790s. The poems juxtapose the innocent, pastoral world of childhood against an adult world of corruption and repression. The collection explores the value and limitations of two different perspectives on the world. Many of the poems are in pairs, so that the same situation or problem is seen through the lens of innocence first and then experience. “A Divine Image” and “The Human Abstract” are two companion poems that look at the virtues Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love. Both poems possess contrasting philosophies pertaining to the virtues. “A Divine Image,” a song of innocence, strives for reverence on the one hand, while “The Human Abstract” exhibits cynicism.
In “A Divine Image” Blake writes about God and his existence within humanity. The personified figures of Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love are listed as four virtues of delight. The speaker states that everyone prays to these in times of distress and thanks them for blessings because they represent “God, our Father dear.” In addition, the virtues are characteristics of humanity. Mercy is found inside the human heart, pity in the human face, peace envelops humans, and love exists in the “human form divine.” To further prove that man and God are alike “the four virtues that Blake assigns are the ones conventionally associated with Jesus, who was both man and God” (Gleckner 37).
Blake creates a world of brotherhood, acceptance and the sense of community spirit among mankind in the third stanza.
Then every man, of every clime,
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine,
Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.
“All people in the world must love and respect the ‘human form divine'” regardless of their religion or culture (Ferber 23). This establishes a common bond between people that brings people together. The stanza emits an impression of family involving the whole world. This idealized world is far from reality, but envisioned through the innocent lens.
“The Human Abstract” satirizes the virtues that appear pure and innocent in the first poem. In the first stanza, the speaker proves that the virtues would not be possible without the distress of others.
Pity would be no more,
If we did not make somebody Poor;
And Mercy no more could be,
If all were as happy as we;
He says that without poverty, there would be no way for people to exercise pity, and that if everyone were happy, there would be no chance to ease the suffering of other people. Therefore, mercy and pity “only exist in an imperfect world”; they are “not intrinsic to the human soul” (Erdman 33). In the second stanza, Blake attacks the remaining two virtues, peace and love.
And mutual fear brings peace,
Till the selfish loves increase;
Then Cruelty knits a snare,
And spreads his baits with care.
The speaker demonstrates how peace can only result from fear, unlike “The Divine Image” where peace is the natural state of being. The same idea applies to love, which, in the innocent poem is “the human form divine,” but in “The Human Abstract” is a state of mind that only seeks its own advantages and never benefits others. There is only one kind of love, self-love.
Blake uses Biblical allusions to further subdue the notion of the divine virtues. The speaker states that when society accepts the ideas of the innocent poem, the result is a “cruel society that traps the innocent” (Ferber 13). Blake uses the symbol of the Tree of Mystery in the last four stanzas. This tree is derived from the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil, of which Adam and Eve ate the fruit, as told in Genesis 2:9” (Marsh 42). Blake incorporates another biblical allusion when the Tree becomes so large that it spreads everywhere and blocks the sun to produce “a dismal shade / Of Mystery.” “In the Book of Revelation 17:5, the Whore of Babylon is assumed to be called Mystery.” The speaker also adds that “the Caterpillar and Fly,” which Blake uses to symbolize “organized religion”, feed on this Tree (Gleckner 38-39).
In the fifth stanza, the narrator explains what the Tree of Mystery produces: deceit. Blake uses the image of the growth of the Tree “to describe the advanced stages of deception” (Marsh 36). Like the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the deceit is tempting and lures people in under its spell. It appears to have everything that people need, but the Raven, a symbol of death, lives in the thickest part of the tree. The further and further that humanity is dragged into this deceit, the closer to death they become. In the last stanza, the most frightening point is made; the Tree of Mystery grows inside the human mind. The final statement refers to the human capacity to create false structures of belief through “excessive use of the rational part of the mind” (Erdman 21).
“The Human Abstract” and “A Divine Image” offer opposing views on the virtues Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love. The speaker in “A Divine Image” states that society prays to the virtues in times of need, and also thank them for all of the world’s blessings. In contrast, “The Human Abstract” exposes how the virtues would not exist if not for the suffering of others. All is not lost, however, as Erdman interprets the last line to mean that “the ‘Human Brain’ can choose to make the world the glorious place it implicitly is, but also can create a falsely isolated and consequently fallen world” (31). Although Blake would later develop a mythological system to convey his ideas, these two poems contain the essence of his vision in stark simplicity: “his opposition to any philosophy or creed that diminishes man’s capacity to enjoy the unbounded bliss that is his birthright” (Gleckner 43).